Question: Stealing Donors

I have really enjoyed hearing from all of you regarding these questions. The last couple we have received some really great answers about Creative Events Ideas and Fundraising Ethics.

Question: What do you think about asking donors from organizations you worked with before for a donation or to get involved with your current nonprofit?

In the nonprofit world people are changing jobs more and more frequently. This can result in creating relationships with donors from a number of different organizations. I’ve found that when I work with people often times there are a few I get to know at a bit deeper level and stay in touch with after I am at the organization. Sometimes these individuals ask about my work to see if it fits in with their giving interests.


9 Responses to Question: Stealing Donors

  1. Mark Petersen says:

    I’m glad you asked that question; it’s a good one. I am speaking from the foundation side and don’t like thinking of myself as being ‘stealable’!! That is commodification language that views donors as assets. You can’t steal me, I am an autonomous individual not owned by a charity.

    But language aside, what you speak of is a reality many fundraisers and donors deal with. I know from my desk, the turnover in fundraisers is incredibly high.

    My personal rule of thumb is this: I won’t engage with a fundraiser who has moved on to a new organization unless a year has passed between her/his former role (where we had the ‘relationship’) and the new role. I’ve found premature approaches to be in very poor taste, and they negatively impact the potential of the new organization to advance with me. If you truly have a relationship, not just a ‘relationship’ (if you get my meaning), then you will continue to relate, but money doesn’t have to exchange hands.

  2. The test, I suggest is to ask yourself

    1 Is this behaviour ethically correct? and
    2 Would you feel good if were treated this way?

    The answer to both in my case is No and on the basis that if something feels wrong then it is probably wrong. Another way of looking at the ? is the fact that by having to ask the question it indicates that it is probably out of order behaviour

  3. Jason Dick says:

    I don’t really look at it as “stealing” donors as a large part of fundraising is bringing in new business. Ethically, if I were in the business world and had not signed a non-compete people I would not see this as a conflict of interest. I know bankers that have been hired simply because of their client base. Is it the same thing or is it different?
    But I am not interested in just ethic I want to do the right thing. Mark Peterson I like your rule of thumb. I think a good way to look at it is to wait a year and see who you really keep in touch with. If you really have a relationship with this individual they will want to know what you’re doing and connect with your organization.

  4. Thankfully, the Association of Fundraising Professionals (as well as CASE and AHP) has issued clear guidelines related to this issue – as well as many other ethical issues that professional fundraisers face.

    Donor relationships belong to the organization – not to the fundraiser. When I’ve been asked about bringing donor relationships to a new organization, my response has been to ask then how they would feel if I took donors from their organization to the next organization I worked with. Then I share the AFP Code of Ethical Principals and Standards (which is signed by over 30,000 professionals each year). Here’s a link:

  5. Jason Dick says:

    Kirsten- Thank you for your comment. That is a really good document to point everyone too. Could you help clarify something for me? I looked over the standards and they specifically speak to donor contact and prospect information belonging to the organization not the donor themselves. I completely agree that all contact info, prospect research, giving information, etc. should be owned by the organization.
    Working even in a larger city the donor communities overlap especially at the major and lead gift levels. I have spent time looking over other organization’s annual reports to see if there are donor names we should be considering. If a donor has connected with me personally and/or I am able to find contact information for them from a public source is there still an ethical issue?

  6. Hi Jason – You are right – there is typically much overlap among donors and organizations (especially since the average donor contributes to about 6-7 organizations). I would suggest that the question might be why you are contacting them. If you know that they donated to another organization because of a public source – and you find their contact information via a public source, there may not be an issue. To me, the issue relates primarily to linking donors to the organizations we work with rather than to us personally. The goal being to strengthen the organization for the long-term (not just for the length of time we are there). If you are a member of AFP and have a question that is not answered in either the code or the guidelines, there is a hotline at AFP that you can call for clarification (AHP and CASE may have that as well, but I’m not sure). If you want to contact me off-line to talk about your particular situation in more depth please let me know.

  7. Janice Chan says:

    Jason, you mentioned how in the business world, people are often hired for their client bases and this is probably part of the reason companies started making employees in such positions sign non-compete agreements. I don’t know if anyone here is/has been in the position of hiring fundraisers, but I’m sure that what’s attractive about really successful fundraisers is not just their skillset, but also their connections – even though their skillset should allow them to build plenty of new relationships. I think Kirsten brings up a good point – how your new employer would feel if you were to solicit donors you connected while working for them at another organization. On the other hand, Mark Petersen brings up another good point – are donors “assets” that are stealable? I think any good fundraiser realizes that they are only hurting themselves in the long run if they were to solicit all of their previous donors every time they moved to another organization.

    But then again, if you’re truly building a relationship and are connecting with those donors on multiple levels – where’s the line between donor and a friend who also supports my organization? And what if it is not work-related? What if someone falls into the second category (friend and donor) – is it out of bounds to ask them to support you when you’re doing Relay for Life or selling raffle tickets for your kid’s soccer team? What if they have asked you (personally) to support things for which they were raising money?

    And has anyone ever worked for a nonprofit that made them sign a non-compete agreement?

    Sorry I keep asking more questions, but this is a really good question and like most issues involving people, I don’t think it’s always so clear cut.

  8. Stephanie Doty says:

    This is an excellent question and certainly poignant in this economy. I’m in a graduate program in noprofit leadership and was recently astonished when I learned that a student “expected” a newly hired Development Director would bring a list of donors from his/her previous employer and “work” those relationships in the new organization. My reaction was not only astonishmen, but I could not understand how anyone would not see this as an ethical issue. I agree that the ideal development officer has made contacts and connections that are invaluable and, in many instances, transferrable insofar as foundations and businesses. However, even the idea of “bringing donors” with you to a new position is appalling to me. I agree with a comment that I read earlier about this being wholly unethical. Certainly funding relationships with foundations and/or corporations are one thing; but, individual donor relationships are something quite different. Far too many nonporift organizations do not understand the complexity of development, the time involved in cultivating and deepening relationships, but, more importantly, how critical it is to any organization to make that investment of time and effort to grow the relationship so the donor wants to become more closely involved. That is not something any ethical development officer would “take with them” when leaving an organization. I believe it is the skills involved in being able to effect those relationships that is the invaluable commodity. I appreciate this forum to discuss this very, very important issue and get a full measure of the feedback that exists within the sector. Stephanie Doty

  9. GreenAvenue says:

    Funding organizations have committies that look at each review. As long as your non profit has a good case then why should you worry about ‘stealing’? I am grant proposal writer and I use a funding organization for three or four non profits.

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